Ap­pre­ci­ate what Pa­trick achieved

USA TODAY International Edition - - SPORTS - Chris­tine Bren­nan cbren­nan@us­ato­day.com USA TO­DAY Sports

If Dan­ica Pa­trick is in­deed driv­ing in her last races, if she re­ally is tak­ing her con­sid­er­able tal­ents into other busi­ness ven­tures, she will leave NASCAR as she en­tered it, a fig­ure sur­rounded by con­tro­versy and de­ri­sion, but also hope and as­pi­ra­tion.

Some will choose to fo­cus on an ob­vi­ous statis­tic: She has never won a NASCAR race in 180 ca­reer Cup starts over five-plus years as a full-time driver.

I will choose to fo­cus on this: Some­day, when NASCAR has over­come its alarm­ing lack of di­ver­sity, and a woman wins a race, and an­other wins one, and an­other, they all will thank the same per­son for paving the way. Dan­ica Pa­trick.

By all ac­counts, in­clud­ing her own, the 35-year-old Pa­trick has strug­gled this year, rank­ing 28th in the stand­ings. That sounds not so great. But con­sider this:

What if the top woman in golf or ten­nis ranked 28th on the men’s tour? Can you imag­ine? How jaw-drop­ping would that be?

Or how about this: what if the 28th best player in Ma­jor League Base­ball or the NFL or NBA or NHL was a woman? The phys­i­cal de­mands of th­ese var­i­ous sports are dif­fer­ent from the de­mands of driv­ing a race car, of course, but have we ever re­ally con­sid­ered just how im­pres­sive Pa­trick’s per­for­mances have been, even in a bad year?

Her de­trac­tors, so short­sighted and rooted in an­other time, con­tin­u­ally fo­cus on what she hasn’t ac­com­plished.

They have it all wrong. We should be look­ing at what she has ac­com­plished.

She is the only woman to have won an IndyCar race, the Ja­pan 300 in 2008. Her third-place fin­ish in the 2009 In­di­anapo­lis 500 is the best ever by a woman in that iconic race. She is the only woman to have won a pole in NASCAR’s Cup se­ries, and it was a big one: the 2013 Day­tona 500, where she fin­ished eighth.

I hap­pen to know sev­eral young fe­male ath­letes who turned on a NASCAR race for the first time that day, their sole pur­pose to cheer her on.

It’s only nat­u­ral to mark Pa­trick’s place in sports his­tory first and fore­most by gen­der. But be­cause of Pa­trick’s con­sid­er­able tal­ent, there’s more to this story. She was a suc­cess­ful, in­cred­i­bly pop­u­lar driver who hap­pened to be a woman. She was good enough to be­long and com­pete, year af­ter year. This wasn’t an act of char­ity or sym­pa­thy. She de­served to be right where she was.

Pa­trick’s likely de­par­ture leaves only two non-white males as reg­u­lar Cup driv­ers, Kyle Lar­son, an Asian Amer­i­can, and Daniel Suarez, who is from Mex­ico. No other women. No African Amer­i­cans. NASCAR, what in the world is up with that? This is a fail­ure of mas­sive pro­por­tions and should be un­ac­cept­able to every one of your spon­sors.

At least one of Pa­trick’s com­peti­tors un­der­stands what it ap­pears so many oth­ers do not. Af­ter hear­ing the news that Pa­trick would not be re­turn­ing to her team for 2018, Brad Ke­selowski tweeted his praise for her, gen­er­at­ing crit­i­cism from the usual sus­pects on Twit­ter.

He fired back, writ­ing: “Have come to ac­cept that mankind never knows or ap­pre­ci­ates what it has un­til it’s gone. NASCAR fans will miss her badly in time.”

If Pa­trick is fin­ished rac­ing, we will re­mem­ber her as such a con­fi­dent, strong pres­ence, so vis­i­ble and so in­ter­est­ing, es­pe­cially for young girls to see.

You don’t have to know a thing about auto rac­ing to know we all were bet­ter off be­cause she was there.

BRIAN SPURLOCK, USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Dan­ica Pa­trick is the only woman to have won a NASCAR Cup pole.

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